Paris Never Leaves You

The moral price of survival (Paris pre- and during WWII; Manhattan 1950s): You don’t just read Ellen Feldman’s historical novels. You devour them.

Feldman is an accomplished author of seven historical novels – Paris Never Leaves You, her newest – and an historian. Reading her body of work explains why she won a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009 to support her art and creativity. Reviews of her earlier novels call them “masterful.” Paris Never Leaves You is no exception. Feldman’s prose and storytelling are so emotionally immersive, it feels as if we’re witnessing history as it’s happening.

The third-person narrator in this novel punctures the assumption that the most intimate voice is the first person. To stay true to the moral angst of the fictional main character – Charlotte Floret – the author/historian knew that what she’d lived through was too unbearable for her to relive in the telling.

What did Charlotte do that was so awful, so compromising of her moral compass, she believed she sold her soul?

Charlotte’s story alternates between the lead-up to and during Hitler’s invasion of Paris, and ten years later after the war in mid-1950s Manhattan where she’s immigrated to. All years haunted and influenced by her conflicted conscience. Hers is a story of doing whatever necessary to protect her daughter Vivi. Survival “never comes with a clear conscience.” 

Opening in Charlotte’s 1954 Manhattan office where she’s an editor for a “prestigious publishing house,” she receives an air-mail letter she throws away unopened. She’s received others like it, none opened. Mailed from Columbia, South America, the only thing we’re told, except that somehow it made its “way through the Drancy records” to have found her. Drancy is also referenced in the Prologue, so we assume Charlotte survived a concentration camp. She doesn’t speak about being Jewish, only to repeatedly say “Hitler made me a Jew.” So we assume the soul-killing, unspeakable horrors of the Nazis are why Charlotte cannot tell us her story. It’s more than that.

We’re not just seeing fictionalized lives through an historical lens, but seeing into Charlotte’s ashamed soul, as well as the mysterious letter writer’s anguished soul. The novel never leaves you because it has a powerful and complicated moral soul.

The complexity of moral choices is consistent in both historical timelines, so it feels as if alternating chapters by timeframe is a new literary technique. Of course it isn’t, but you’ll gulp down Charlotte’s Paris survival story as a single-mother protecting her four-year-old daughter Vivi – both of whom saw Nazi brutality up-close – in the same breath as ten years later, when Charlotte and Vivi are living in NYC. Vivi is now fourteen, and while their lives have drastically changed, Charlotte remains vigilant about protecting Vivi. Her secrets, fears, and disturbed conscience are still very much alive. So is anti-Antisemitism. In a pivotal scene, Vivi comes home from her exclusive private school upset and hurt that a classmate reneged a coveted party invitation because her grandmother did not want a Jewish girl there. Vivi is old enough, curious, and persistent to want answers about her religion, her past, her identity. You feel for this lovely, well-behaved young lady who deserves answers. Charlotte knows that, another moral dilemma. Tell truths, or keep hiding them?

Paris Never Leaves You was supposed to be published June 2020. The delay allowed this reviewer to catch up on many of the author’s earlier historical novels. With five read, a few characteristics were noticed: 

  • Morality is a consistent theme across novels set during different historical periods.
  • The historical perspective is different than others we’ve read, or about a slice of history we haven’t.
  • Even with plenty of emotionally powerful WWII stories, Paris Never Leaves You differs too, focusing on a character’s (actually two others) struggles with moral consequences, for different reasons.

Charlotte’s tormenting wartime moral decisions were made out of sheer desperation for basic survival needs – food for her wasting-away daughter (and if any leftovers for herself) – and a hunger for human kindness and companionship that upended her righteousness. 

Two other examples of how morality plays out differently in two more of the author’s powerhouse books: Terrible Virtue is also a story about a courageous woman who fought and sacrificed, but not for her family or herself but for a cause bigger than her: a woman’s right to control her body. Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement, is likely new to us. Her staunch moral convictions were guided by what she knew was righteous despite having to abandon her family, which took a great toll. Charlotte never abandons Vivi, quite the opposite, but she does abandon her moral principles so she and Vivi can live.

Lucy is based on the true story of the triangular relationships between FDR, Eleanor, and Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s young social secretary for whom one of America’s greatest presidents loved and needed during a world crisis. Whatever you think of Lucy’s morals, her actions made a difference in history.

Charlotte’s actions didn’t change history like Margaret’s and Lucy’s, but history changed Charlotte. While hers is not a story of complicity with Nazis like other Parisians, nor joining heroic French resistors to defeat the enemy, but a German soldier is at the heart of her tale. He frequented the Paris bookshop she was managing for her father. (A “leftist publisher,” he fled Paris before the Germans arrived.)

Charlotte is a Sorbonne-educated woman who speaks four languages, ideally suited to takeover the bookshop since she loves books. An added bonus for all bibliophiles, you’ll read about Parisian bookshops from that era, Nazi censorship of books, and Charlotte’s Manhattan publishing world.

Horace Field, the publisher, is her boss. A larger-than-life force despite being wheelchair-bound. They go way back as he was a friend of Charlotte’s father, so he’s taken the role of her protector – professionally and personally. The reader keeps an eye on Horace, as does Charlotte, having been introduced to a “certain loucheness lurking behind the scenes” at this publishing house. Just as the morality theme is complicated, so is Horace. His fighting, survivalist soul is mixed in here too, dramatically. 

Horace doesn’t just find a workplace fit for Charlotte when she arrives in America, he also owns a four-story brownstone where Charlotte and Vivi live on the top floor. Horace’s wife, Hannah, is a thorny but dedicated psychoanalyst who sees patients in their home. Childless, she becomes a devoted mother-figure for Vivi when Charlotte is still working and Vivi comes home from school. 

Hannah’s psychological training eggs Vivi on to find out about what she’s been questioning. Who was her father? What’s it feel like to be a Jew?

Charlotte has told Vivi nothing about her father, not even his name or picture. All she knows is that he was killed in the war. Likewise, as noted, she doesn’t know anything about the Jewish religion. Hannah believes unlocking those secrets is fundamental to Vivi’s identity development. More entangled relationships, more moral conflicts. And suspense. 

Feldman is a master at controlling the intensity and mystery of the plot. She unfolds it bit by bit, at first subtly, then louder, then screaming. The pace echoes Hitler’s rising hold on Paris. It also reflects the build-up of emotions in Manhattan relationships, and another recurring theme: trust.

By the time the novel comes full circle, the identity of the mystery letter writer is revealed. You may have suspected who the writer was, but the letter’s contents will still catch you off guard. Paris Never Leaves You is the work of a master at the top of her game.


Leave a Comment

Tea by the Sea

Unbearable losses, and the fight to get what’s yours back (Jamaica and Brooklyn, 1990s – 2010s): Tea by the Sea might be one of your favorite feminist novels of the year. Surely Jamaican-born Plum Valentine, the protagonist, will capture your heart as she’s “focused on mattering, on not being a person so easily discarded and left behind.”

Plum has been a victim of not having “agency” in her life. Lacking control and the freedom to choose her destiny, others made dreadful decisions that predetermined her life, leaving her behind. Her childhood was marked by strict parental control that ripped her away from her beloved Jamaican homeland to an immigrant’s life in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, where she did not belong. Twice they re-shuffled her from Jamaica to Brooklyn and back, abandoning her again and again. At seventeen, she suffered “the most greatest loss” of all: the day after she gave birth to a baby girl in a Jamaican hospital her daughter was carried away by the father, Lenworth, without letting anyone know their whereabouts. Plum had planned to name her Marissa, which in Spanish means the sea and signified the “promise and freedom” she never had.

For seventeen years – “6,205 days give or take a few for leap years” to be exact – she searched from Jamaica and Brooklyn for the daughter whose father told her she was “left behind” by her mother, telling everyone else she’d died. For Plum, that’s seventeen years of “calcified grief”; for her daughter, you’ll wonder what she believed.

Debut author Donna Hemans has written a stirring story that deserves the important Jamaican literary prize she was awarded by the Jamaican Writers Society. It also deserves national attention, tackling the complexity of human emotions, raising a fundamental question about what matters most to live a good life, asking moral questions about motivations and terribly misguided decisions. The eloquent, atmospheric prose also reveals little-known black history at an historical time when America is demanding its racist history be better known. While this is not a novel focused on social justice, it is embedded in its laser-focus on seeking justice for one mother and her daughter.

The Una Marson Award honors a leading Jamaican activist and poet who advocated for Caribbean literature. Another Jamaican poet and activist, apparently legendary, Louise Bennett-Coverly, was celebrated last year on her 100th birthday with a petition (it failed) to recognize a second official language in Jamaica, called “patois,” besides English. She’s credited with raising the dialogue of the Jamaica folk to an art level. Plum’s story is activism in a deeply personal way.

The use of patois is a feature of Jamaican literature. Hemans’ writing mingles the two ways of speaking artfully. English is the more common, but the local dialect is authentically expressed, flavored with dialogue like this: “One day him come back wid hur,” and “Mi dear, you nuh have to ask.”

Judge Tea by the Sea by its exquisite cover! Which establishes Plum’s love of the sparking blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the powdery white sandy beaches encircling Jamaica, a large tropical island south of Cuba, part of the West Indies that become a country when it achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1962.

By Burmesedays via Wikimedia [CC BY-SA]

Plum’s major obstacle to finding her daughter is finding the father who kidnapped her, proving incredibly difficult as he reinvents his life twice, and never looked back. He named their daughter Opal, because her almond-shaped, topaz eyes reminded him of a jewel. Eyes that were also a constant reminder of Plum as they were the same. So was their skin, darker than his.

Will Plum find her daughter? That’s the central question propelling gripping storytelling. 

The freeing sea is symbolic of the searching plot to set oneself free, by taking a stand for what’s morally right, despite the consequences. When the novel ends, Plum is thirty-four and while her emotional life feels “suspended” and “fossilized” she has moved on. The floating sea also personifies the “unending” push and pull of Plum’s changing life.

The prose ebbs and flows too. Offsetting the almost indescribable pain of unrelenting grief, which the author has found heart-stopping words for, are lovely descriptions of Jamaica’s colorful setting – “Spanish style” and “plantation” architectural types, abundance and diversity of flowers and trees, spicy cuisine. Yet the beauty is pierced by Plum’s raw pain, and the island’s racial history. So the prose goes from feeling like a calming summer breeze to intense yearning and suspenseful searching that never fades.

Interestingly, the timeline also floats, moving back and forth without being specified until the end, seeming to emphasize the timelessness of a mother’s grief and the longing for the mother a girl never knew. Except for one date, the only date that really matters: September 16th when Marissa/Opal was born.

The geography spans Jamaica from its western coast to east, but is mostly set in small, rural towns on the northwestern side, near Montego and Discovery Bays.

Montego Bay:

By Gail Frederick via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

On Discovery Bay a plaque commemorates Columbus’ sailing into the bay in 1494:

By Raychristofer via Wikimedia [CC BY-SA]

The Columbus history is important for another reason: “the Tainos, a group long extinct from Jamaica, decimated by hard labor and the diseases brought to the island by Christopher Columbus and the cohort of explorers, diseases for which their bodies had built no immunity.” Once we may have dismissed epic diseases as ancient history, but today we know better, living in a moment when history feels like it’s repeating itself. Erasing Jamaica’s indigenous people also reminds us of America’s shameful history towards Native Americans. Jamaica is also another country with a legacy of slave history.

The varied settings let us imagine Jamaica, and take us through the different places Plum lived during her formative and later years; also to an abandoned house Lenworth first took Opal to. He grew up in a poor, rural village near the eastern side; a built-up Kingston on the eastern coast is one of the areas Plum searched.

Part I is aptly titled Unforgettable, and Forgettable. Plum’s loss is unforgettable since she’s been tossed aside so many times she feels forgettable. Except to Opal, who senses her mother’s gone as an infant unable to be soothed by one of two substitute mothers, and then at four when she expresses the missing piece of herself asking: “How come I don’t have a mother?”

While you want to abhor Lenworth, your feelings about him are not black-or-white. Hemans has created a nuanced character whose motives and childhood influences give us insight. Still, the tragedy that ensued was a doomed decision he regretted the rest of his life, but didn’t do anything about except do everything in his power to hide by carefully controlling his life. Power, or the lack of it, is a driving force and theme. 

Of course Lenworth knows he committed a crime, actually two. First when he was twenty-three and and Plum got pregnant under-age at sixteen. He was also her tutor at her boarding school (a throwback to British rule) so he’d crossed the line professionally as well. The second crime, the kidnapping. The tragedy is seen on multiple fronts. Plum and Opal are not the only ones who’ve suffered, he has too. But our sympathies are always with Plum and Opal, who we know little about, as this is Plum’s story, told through Plum’s mournful soul.

A brutally emotional story, yet it’s painted with beauty, resilience, and so much determination it makes Plum the unforgettable person she fought so hard to be.


Leave a Comment

The Jane Austen Society 2

Calling all Janeites and readers hungry for comfort food (Chawton, England and Hollywood; 1932 – 1947): Looking for a novel that will calm you down “in the face of uncertainty, illness, and despair”? The Jane Austen Society serves literary comfort food.

After reading and rereading Jane Austen’s classics while coping with her husband’s long illness, debut author Natalie Jenner wished for more, so she fictionalized one inspired by Jane Austen’s characters and themes. Written in well-mannered, evocative prose, Jenner’s delightful step-back-in-time takes us back to Austen’s life two-hundred years ago, to where she lived her last eight years. 

Chawton is a very small village, “population 377,” in Hampshire county, southeastern England. Here sits a red-brick house, once known as Chawton Cottage, where Jane Austen wrote or rewrote her six novels.

In 1949, Chawton Cottage officially became The Jane Austen House Museum. The novel honors those who understood the importance of preserving the legacy of the author of “some of the greatest writing the world has ever known.” It memorializes the museum founders with new characters, historical scholarship, and literary criticism. Jenner acknowledges an “expert on Jane Austen,” Laurel Ann Nattress, but after reading her novel it’s fair to say Jenner is one too. The disparate characters she thoughtfully invents are united by a passion for Austen’s works. They, like Jenner, have an “acute understanding of Austen.”

This perceptive and engaging literary romp encourages us to want to visit the museum, but we can’t right now since it’s closed due to COVID-19 (endangering its future as of this writing.) What better time to take a brief virtual tour:

Jane Austen’s books were not just comforting to the author, the real museum founders, the characters in the novel, and countless Austen fans the world over who call themselves Janeites. They were prescribed during WWII to “shell-shocked soldiers.”

“Part of the comfort,” Jenner writes, “was the satisfaction of knowing there would be closure.” That despite “an inexplicable anxiety over whether the main characters would find love and happiness,” readers knew “it was all going to work out in the end.”

“But part of it,” Jenner goes on to say, “was the heroism of Austen herself, in writing through illness and despair, and facing her own death.” Another reason she attributes to “a world so a part of our own, yet so separate, that entering it is like some kind of tonic.” And perhaps the most powerful reason is that “it may be the most sense we’ll get to make out of our own messed-up world.” 

Chawton is a sleepy little village with charming thatched-roof cottages, but it could be “extremely intense” as everyone saw everything. That poses problems for many of the characters, who are stoic, shy, or hiding their emotions. All are grieving losses from the war, or other causes. 

The plot – founding the real Jane Austen Society that founded the museum – fires up about 120 pages in. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a cast of characters from different walks of life, and how each was introduced to Austen, and why they share a common bond of seeing something of themselves in a Jane Austen book. Discovering others who loved Austen as much as they did leads them to discover friendship, purpose, and romance they’d kept secret as long as they could.

The romanticism echoes what Jenner calls Austen’s “big secret”: the chemistry between two people from “physical attraction,” “deep affection,” companionship, respect, or loneliness. Many of their lives are stuck, until they find each other through Austen. 

What makes a novel a classic? Why are Jane Austen’s timeless? Readers and the novel’s characters may differ on their favorite – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, or Northanger Abbey – but they all understand the gift Austen gave us.

Understanding is the key word. A great opening quote by the British writer Lionel Trilling emphasizes the significance of understanding: “Who shall inherit England? The businesspeople who run her or the people who understand her?” For Jenner, it’s understanding Austen that unlocks her genius. That it’s the people who understand Austen’s greatness in understanding the human condition that keep her alive.

The band of characters is colorfully created, but most do not lead colorful lives. England was still suffering after the war ended, and still rationing food.

Each of the characters quietly mourns the loss of loved ones. Some are subjected to inequalities due to social class norms and societal expectations. Themes Jane Austen tackled. 

The first two characters we’re introduced to are a farmer struggling to save his family’s farm that goes back four generations. He’s lived his whole life in Chawton. He’s lost his father to the war and his brother to illness. As the novel progresses after the war, he’s still living with his mother in his forties. We first meet him in ‘32, when he meets “the most striking human being he had ever met.” In her twenties, she politely asks if he knows where Jane Austen’s house is, having arrived from America to visit the house of the author she adores. Her deceased father introduced her to Austen, so reading her is like “music” filled with poignant memories. The next time we meet her she’s a famous Hollywood actress in her thirties, already seeing her career dimming. So she moves to Chawton to be closer to Austen, along with her wealthy, scoundrel Hollywood producer whose fallen in love with her.

This opening scene is critical to our understanding some confusing genealogy that explains why Jane Austen was living in her brother Edward’s house on the estate of the Knight family, not far from their “Great House,” as Austen called it. The farmer could easily point to the property as it abuts his.

Chawton House, by Graham Horn via geograph [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Who is the Knight family? How did Jane Austen (her mother and only sister Cassandra) end up living in one of their houses? Apparently, one of Austen’s six brothers, Edward, took on the legal name Edward Austen Knight, when he was adopted by 1860s Knights. Related to her father, seems it wasn’t all that uncommon for a wealthy couple without children to adopt a child from a poorer one. The Knights owned a number of estates, including the one in Chawton. Edward became heir.

A fictional village gentleman doctor, the only physician in the village, is the character connected to all the village characters since he’s treated everyone. A widower in his fifties still privately grieving the loss of his wife seven years ago, he’s viewed as a “father figure.” 

Other characters include a remaining Knight daughter, who lives on the estate dutifully caring for her dying, ornery, ungrateful father. Now a spinster in her forties, she rarely goes outside except to uphold old-fashioned Christmas traditions. The house has a library containing over 2000 rare books, including first editions of every Jane Austen book. Growing up, she lost herself in her books. So does her delightful, bright, mature, and resourceful sixteen-year old housemaid who discovers Austen while dusting the library shelves.

Another Janeite was a schoolteacher that men found (still do) intimidating. Newly married, she lost her husband in the war and was never the same. 

One more character of note: a kindly gentleman who works for Sotheby’s in London, where the premier auction house originated from. He knows the value of all-things Austen.

Most, not all, of the characters are goodly, part of the charm and calm of the novel. Yet it riles us up to read or reread Jane Austen. You’ll likely see something you hadn’t seen before.


Leave a Comment

Hollywood Park: A Memoir

Beating the odds against a remarkably traumatic childhood (late 1970s to present-day; California and Oregon): Are there enough words to describe a severely deprived childhood marked by abandonment, abuse, addiction, mental illness? 

Yes it seems if every word is on fire. The kind of literary firepower Indie rock songwriter/musician-turned-author Mikel Jollett has penned in his exquisitely aching and written memoir, Hollywood Park.

Now 45, Jollett’s prose feels like he poured every ounce of his being and musicality into unmasking his story, after spending two-plus decades hiding behind “masks.” Hiding terribly pained, lonely, ashamed feelings. 

You don’t need a major scientific study – the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study – to tell you traumatic childhoods can kill 70% of its victims. Jollett’s miraculous survivalist story bemoans that loudly.

For the fullest experience, you may also want to listen to his sixth album also named Hollywood Park, produced to accompany his memoir. You’ll hear the same rhythmic force and poignant voice in the music and lyrics embedded in his awesome prose. (Note: the horse-racing and running imagery highlight pursuits that profoundly affected him):

More than an outstanding memoir/album combo, the book reads like a real-life enactment of abnormal and child psychology texts, and why mental illness and addiction are toxic to an entire family. 

Toxic is this review’s word of choice since it’s also central to the name of the rock band Jollett founded in LA – The Airborne Toxic Event. Considered alternative rock, the genre is more eclectic, original, or challenging than traditional rock. Mixing guitars, keyboards, drums, violins, and cello gives the music a distinctive, pleasing quality. Hear it again in Jollett’s breakout song, Sometime Around Midnight, written one particularly emotionally devastating night after he broke up with his girlfriend, when he admitted to himself he had a serious issue committing to relationships. One of many excruciating coming-of-age literary scenes. “Music makes me feel like I belong somewhere,” says Jollett: 

The band’s name references part of Don DeLillo’s National Award-winning novel White Noise, in which a character, Jollett tells us, was “exposed to an enormous toxic cloud.” Precisely what his “ping-pong ball” life was like. We know that the moment we read this emotionally piercing opening paragraph:

“We were never young. We were just too afraid of ourselves. No one told us who we were or what we were or where all our parents went. They would arrive like ghosts, visiting us for a morning, an afternoon. They would sit with us, or walk around the grounds, to laugh or cry or toss us in the air while we screamed. Then they’d disappear again, for weeks, for months, for years, leaving us alone with our memories and dreams, our questions and confusion, the wide-open places we were free to run like wild horses in the night.”

Synanon – a notorious commune – once sat on the grounds spoken of. Initially a drug-rehabilitation “live off the grid” experiment, it ended up as one of the most violent cults in American history.

Synanon is where Jollett’s trauma begins. Forget freedom, utopia. Heads of children and their parents who came there to be saved were shaved, then their children were ripped away at six months of age under some perverse notion they were “children of the universe.” Raised by other women on the commune, the memoir opens when Mikel is five, his brother Tony seven. Age differences and temperaments make a huge difference in how their stories play out. Their father an ex-con addicted to heroin and alcohol; their mother an alcoholic (like hers) with a very distorted view of motherhood and family.

Mikel is the gentle, wanting-to-please child; Tony the angry, inconsolable one. Mikel bonded with childless, good-hearted Bonnie, the closest he ever came to having a real mother; Tony attached to no one. Their drama begins when their birth mother sneaks them out of the commune in the dead of the night, telling Mikel and Tony to call her “Mom,” an empty word regarding her. She’s a tormenting broken record repeating everything will be alright, nothing to fear as she’s rescued them.

Nothing is ever right, and fear is ever-present. Fear they’ll be caught by the commune searching for them. Fear of being alone. Fear of a mother who brainwashed Mikel into believing “a son’s job is to take care of his mother.” Amazing how imprinted that twisted message was for years, thinking all mothers treated their children the same.

Divided into four parts, running away from the commune is Part I, Escape. Part II, Oregon, specifically a “white trash corridor of northeast Salem,” is where they soon land. Their father has escaped too, but to LA with Bonnie detailed in California, Part III. Oregon is where more fears set in. “Mom” sees herself as the victim, never her children. Pits “Superchild” Mikel against “Scapegoat” Tony. Soon, a new fear arises. Fear of two step-dads who come and go. Both are addicts. One tries his best, takes Mikel fishing and hiking but his fate terrifies; the other is despicable, physically abusive, and forces Mikel to butcher rabbits he’s raising in a barn alongside their ramshackle house. Mikel is haunted by the violence; Tony refuses to touch the food. Dinner is a nightmarish event day after hungry day. No memories of comfort food in this bizarre, chaotic house. 

Mikel tries heartbreakingly hard to keep the peace, mothering his mother under her “special child” expectations, bearing the brunt of her psychological dependency and disease. Tony becomes a bad influence on Mikel, but it takes years for him to also descend on a downward trajectory.

Mikel is a precocious child and avid reader, far more advanced than others his age. Even when Jollett relives part of his story from a child’s perspective, it’s clear to others and us he’s well-beyond his years. Infusing enough misspelled words, questions, and immature thoughts helps him sound young. Sadly, we know he never felt young. 

In elementary school, he’s placed in a Gifted and Talented Program rather than skip grades. While there’s a realistic, thoughtful debate as how best to challenge highly intelligent, formative minds, his mother ignores the school’s recommendation deciding without giving it much thought believing she’s the expert!

Bouncing back and forth between two very different worlds in two different states, the California chapters are the author’s happiest. Wonderfully, Bonnie is still with their father, and he truly wants to be a father. Bonnie’s Jewish family opens their arms to Mikel and he enters junior high school there. Viewed as betrayal by his self-consumed, guilt-inflicting, deteriorating mother whose working at an Oregon mental hospital with prisoners teaching group therapy! Astounding when she’s grossly failed to nurture her own group/family.

Junior high is a fascinating period from the standpoint of the author sensing belongingness. Bused into a school where he’s the racial minority, he relates to disadvantaged kids who’ve been victimized too. In high school, he desperately tries to fit in, discovers long-distance running, which becomes obsessive on the track team at Stanford University, where he’s accepted on a scholarship. Dream come true? Not when you’re an outsider among the elitist crowd.

College is included in Part IV, Hollywood Park, named after the racetrack Jollett and his father spent so many good times together. Bottled up angst propels his music, learning how to “make the pain useful.” 

After his father’s death, Jollett poured his heart out in his memoir. A testament to appreciating he’d been “just broken enough to see beauty.”


Leave a Comment

Code Name Hélène 2

Courage in war and love – inspired by the true story of a female British spy working with the French Resistance (London and France, 1936-1944): How is it that we don’t know the name Nancy Wake, “the most decorated woman of WWII”? Awarded medals of honor from three countries for her bravery, leadership, and cunning saving thousands of lives during the years Hitler rose to power persecuting Jews and when Germany invaded the South of France.

Nancy Wake
via Wikimedia Commons

We’re not the only ones who hadn’t heard of Nancy Wake. Ariel Lawhon writes in her informative Author’s Note that when she first heard about Nancy from a dear friend, she’d “never read any story like it – much less a true one!” Adding, that “in all my years researching and writing historical fiction, I’ve never come across such a bold, bawdy, brave woman . . . amazed by her exploits.” Lawhon’s three years of research and amazement factor into crafting this amazing historical novel about an eye-catching woman who could match any man.

The photo above captures this captivating woman, a journalist-turned-spy who used her seductiveness as a powerful weapon, but wasn’t afraid to use a real one when she had to. What you don’t see is her trademark red lipstick, her “armor”: Elizabeth Arden’s Victory Red, “a slender tube of courage.” Interestingly, the lipstick was launched during the war to inspire a fighting spirit. Nancy personified a fighter, wore the lipstick to telegraph she was. 

Nancy Wake was a dynamo. Her real name is the least used in this masterly novel of codes. In a shrewd, tantalizing voice, she confides in the opening line of Code Name Hélène, Lawhon’s riveting fourth novel, “I have gone by many names.”

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand, grew up in Australia, a country she fled at the age of sixteen, already signaling she’s gutsy. Proven over and over in the four pseudonyms she audaciously assumed before and during WWII. She loathed the Nazis after witnessing their brutality against innocent Jews when she covered a story as a Paris-based journalist working for the Hearst Newspaper Group. 

Code names are listed on a one-page prologue of sorts, summarizing the roles she brilliantly played as that “fighter,” and “the smuggler,” “the spy,” and “the target.”

These names help organize this seat-of-your pants novel so immersive its 450 pages whiz by. Reading it feels like you’re in the midst of watching the most suspenseful, affecting movie you’ve seen in a long time. Not only because so many lives were at stake, including hers, but she left behind a “Great Love” in Marseille, on the Riviera – her irresistible husband Henri Focca, “the most notorious heartbreaker in all of France.”

On page nine we’re told there’s a husband, but their intoxicating love affair evolves and interweaves. Sometimes in his falling-madly-in-love, willing-to-do-anything for her voice, breathing sexual bantering and passion into Nancy’s war chapters. As Nancy gets deeper into the French Resistance spying for the British, she has no idea if Henri’s safe as she was away fighting the Germans when they invaded where their home was – overlooking the Mediterranean, a vital port town – ending the so-called Free Zone under the Vichy government in southern France. 

Writing two intense storylines – war and profound love – must have been exhausting and stirring. 

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of Nancy’s identities and escapades:

  • As Madame Andrée she was a socialite journalist in Paris when she watched in horror a Nazi whipping, dehumanizing, a Jewish woman on a public square, surrounded by “brownshirts” who were “tormenting Vienna Jewish shopkeepers.” You can count on her meeting up with this Nazi again, when he plans to kill her and her right-hand man. His is the face that thickens her blood, makes her fearless.
  • Hélène is the first alias we meet in Chapter One, eight years or so after the other names. She’s parachuting in the dark out of a Royal Air Force bomber plane The Liberator into enemy territory in a strategic mountainous French region, Auvergne. It’s the first time she’s ever been dropped from the sky, having completed, excelled at, grueling training by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Two teammates are jumping with her: an indispensable, Hungarian radio operator Denis Rake glued to BBC’s French Radio Service, and her partner Hubert, a spare-no-words, former Army soldier she didn’t like in training, but now depends on. How Nancy ended up in this death-defying situation executing her mission is told in heroic war chapters alternating between 1944 and her past adventures, with a romance that converges like none other.

Besides critical radio communications – deciphering secret codes with instructions, and transmitting equipment requests and field updates – a bicycle is another life-saver for delivering messages to the French Resistors hiding out in the region’s scattered small villages. Bicycles are everywhere, allowing her to blend in. In one muscle-aching scene, you will not believe the inner strength she draws upon to get the word out.

Leading the resistors so they can “wage their unique brand of guerrilla warfare,” she must first earn their respect. Formidable for the “maquisards” who viewed her sexually and weren’t “formal soldiers” but willing to “make one last, desperate stand against Hitler’s invaders.”

Whatever you call her, Nancy earns everyone’s respect.

  • Lucienne Carlier is the name she adopted in Marseille when she and Henri were married and living extravagantly. He made his money in his father’s shipbuilding business, a despicable character, another storyline. Henri’s love is beautifully selfless, understanding he couldn’t stop his wife from smuggling Jewish refugees to safety, jeopardizing her own. 
  • The Germans dubbed her The White Mouse once Nancy keeps outsmarting them. Naturally, she becomes a prime target on their kill-list.

One defying scene after another fills the pages with high-stakes drama. The prose varies its pace, intensifying the impact. It flows from long sentences to clipped ones; sometimes a single word is a sentence, followed by a sequence of more one word sentences. An effective technique that strengthens the “extreme” of “inhuman, barbaric” crimes against humanity, “beyond the pale of what one human should do to another.”

A radically differently type of extreme is also here. It’s what makes love noble, courageous.

Lawhon’s literary range is extreme. Moods and emotions go from vivid, movie-like war stories that show the very worst of us to the pinnacle of the very best of us.


Leave a Comment